Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No, Let Me Explain That

One of the biggest issues writers struggle with is clarity of structure, telling a book-length story that makes sense all the way through. Just writing a straightforward narrative from a single POV in a more-or-less unbroken span of time is hard enough. The further your storytelling method gets from that, by shifting points of view, changing timelines and settings, mixing narrative styles and the like, the less clear the narrative becomes to your reader, and the more careful we writers must be to make certain our readers can follow us along. Unless, of course, your intent is to confuse or bemuse your reader, in which case you should ignore the remains of this post. But let's assume you want your narrative to be completely comprehensible to your reader, and talk about some issues that affect clarity.

First issue: The writer is unsure of his intent. I know that in my own writing, there have been passages where even I'm not able to say exactly what is going on. A scene or bit of dialogue is vague and while it seems important, nobody can point out why. This happens when I don't quite know what I want to happen. I know that I need some kind of scene there, but I don't know exactly what that scene should be, so I put in a sort of placeholder and hope it all becomes clear later on. Scenes like this are not only useless, because they add nothing to the story, they in fact do harm by baffling your reader and possibly putting them to sleep as you ask them to tread water or run in place for a while as you think about your story and then move on.

Second issue: The writer forgets that the reader is not a mindreader. This is what happens when the writer makes some sort of shift in the way the story is being told and forgets to tell the reader the shift has taken place. For example, you change POVs with each chapter or several chapters, and you don't bother to show right away that the POV has changed. The reader is suddenly in the land of "Huh? What the hell is going on?" That can be cool if you're going for that effect, but if you're not, then pay attention to the clues you give (or don't) to the reader.

Third issue: The writer puts in vague transitional devices. This is similar to the second issue, but the writer thinks she has warned the reader that the narrative has switched from, say, first-person action in the "story present" to journal entries or letters or something else. Often this is accompanied by a change in POV or voice or verb tense, but sometimes not. It can look, to a reader who hasn't been warned that he's now reading a diary instead of being told a story by a narrator, like nothing more than sloppy writing.

The second and third issues frequently crop up when we're trying to be subtle and not hit our readers over the heads with big signposts saying "POV SHIFT HERE." One thing I've learned is that what we think is subtle is often merely invisible or nonexistant to readers, and what we think is heavy-handed is often not. Because we are so familiar with the story, we sometimes lack the critical distance to know the difference. This is why trusted readers are important.

So, the big lessons here:

1. Know what you mean to say, and say it. If you have to explain it to a reader outside their reading, the words on the page don't work and have to be rewritten.

2. The more clever you are with structure, the greater your chance of losing your reader, so be prepared to do extra work clarifying what's going on. Books that shift POVs often have chapter titles with the POV character's name for this reason.

3. The more literary devices you employ, such as journals, letters, found books and the like, the more work you have to do to set those passages off from the rest of the narrative.

What's the best way to delineate between these changes in structural elements? Contrast. If your POV characters all sound the same, why are you bothering? If your narrator's journal entries sound like her narration, what's the difference or the point? Don't just hijack someone's storytelling methods because they were cool in his book; make sure they have an actual function in your own book, and think in terms of function and not of coolness value. If it doesn't make sense, it is nonsense, right?


  1. I am the most guilty of number two, I forget the reader doesn't know everything I do about the story and characters.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. I'm probably guilty of all of these at some point. Though I like to think I'm not being overly obscure, because half the time I feel like I have big, shiny, flashy-lighted arrows pointing at something saying, "THIS IS THE POINT!"
    I think a place one often finds a lot of the mind reader problem is in query letters. Sometimes, after we've spent so much time in our little world, it's easy to forget that not everyone else lives there too.

  3. I think I'm definitely guilty of all of these to varying degrees. Especially the 2nd. It's such a fine line to walk between clarity and info dumping.

  4. Very nice post, Scott. I'm also guilty of the second point. Although, I'm much more sensitive to this now, and I think I'm better at viewing my writing from a distance.

    I like what you said about our subtlety turning into invisibility. That's a key point, in my opinion. I think we have to talk louder in our writing to get a point across than we usually do. I always turn up my volume just a bit from where I think it should be, and readers seem to appreciate that.

  5. This is a great post. I find myself reading over something I wrote a month or two ago and not understanding why I had to put those specific words in because they don't make sense! And my critique groups helps me with the rest.

  6. I can't stand clumsy headhopping. So I tend to be ultra-careful about POV in my own work and am quick to point out problems when I critique. But that's what I love about having crit partners, you can assist each other in weak areas. I think every writer has moments of muddiness--when the writing isn't clear and it shows. I am thankful for critters who tell me when I do it. An interesting thing happens, though. I'm sure others have noticed that when a writer (and that includes me) is confronted with this, they often try to explain, which is useless unless it leads to a discussion on how to fix the problem. When your book is sold, you can't follow the reader home and say, 'What I meant was...'

  7. Tricia: It's always easier to explain than it is to rewrite. Lazier, too. But rewriting makes us stronger! It's like resistance training.

  8. *raises hand* Yeah, hardcore offender for number 2.

    My problem is especially harsh because of the fantasy fiction I write. I and my characters know the ins and outs of the world, but no one else does. And I keep forgetting I have to explain everything that needs explaining without slowing down the text so other people can get inside that world.

  9. Guilty.

    I found myself explaining things to readers during early drafts. You bottom lined it perfectly.

    Lesson learned.

  10. Something you mentioned in the first paragraph really hit home with me... changing timelines... I'm writing a story where the "action" takes place in the present, but then I'm going back in time while still writing in present tense. I don't want to confuse my readers, so when I change time I start a new chapter, and I think each chapter including a time change will be titled by the year...

    Uh-oh. I think I am confusing myself. My readers are in for a real treat if I don't get it together.

    This can be done! This can be done!

  11. Guilty as charged! Now I must face the punishment, revision, revision, revision! :)

    I think I'm most guilty of thinking the reader is a mind reader. I need to dive in and change some things. Thanks for reminding us. :)

  12. I am most likely to be guilty of assuming the reader knows everything I do. It's very hard to pull myself away from that. Great blog, btw!

  13. I like this, Scott, although it makes me stop and wonder if everything I've done in my book isn't working, hah! I like what you say about trusted readers, though. They can be so helpful. Like Davin, I appreciate your point about making things louder than we think they should be. It's like acting...exaggerate it on the stage so others can see it! :)

  14. As someone who has been guilty of headhopping without giving the reader a clear, consistent indication of pov shift, I can relate to this post. I have since learned(i think) how to avoid this problem at least.

  15. Issue #2 - that's me. The book I'm working on now is in first person POV, and it's been a lot easier to manage the problem.

  16. Tere: A lot of people seem to call themselves on #2. I have the opposite problem, loading on lots of detail that later I cut out.

    Dominique: I begin to think that the level of detail we want to put into our novels is largely unnecessary to the reader. But you can go too far and place stories in a vacuum. It's a fine line.

    NWA: Word. I have begun taking out any details that have nothing to do with character.

    Davin: Yeah, we have to turn the volume up a bit, I think. Like Michelle says, it's like theater where you have to be a bit bigger than life to seem lifelike.

    ElanaJ: I'm going through that very thing with my own book right now. "Why did I say THAT?"

    MattDel: I hear all the time from SF/F writers that they have to do a lot more work to establish the world, but as someone who just wrote a book based in 16th-century Europe, a time foreign to most people, I begin to think--as I've said above--that the complete picture of the fictional world we're trying to give our readers is likely not important to the actual story we're telling.

    Charlie: It's fine to have those moments during early drafts, as long as you go back and fix the actual writing!

    Amber: Hmm. Why present tense? Tell me it's not first-person present tense. Anyway, this sort of thing has been done, so you should look at books you've read and like that use this and see how those authors have solved the problem. Maybe you'll get ideas about structure.

    Robyn: Revision is not punishment! Revision is improvement!

    Jenn: Sometimes it's helpful to make a little list of things the reader must know, and make sure you've told them these things in a clear way.

    Michelle: I think you're right about exaggeration, but I also think that what feels exaggerated to writers doesn't necessarily feel over-the-top to readers. Too often when I try to be subtle, nobody catches the hints.

    Crimogenic: I try to keep POV shifts few in number to avoid this very problem. Though I don't have a problem with omniscient POV like some folks have.

    Jay: First-person solves some problems while creating others. My last book was in first-person, and I swear I'll never do that again. It worked for what I was doing, but it was really hard. There is no "easiest" way to tell a story. They all entail trade-offs. Darn it.


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